FEATURE: When the Music Stops: Pete Shelley and the Loss of the Icons




When the Music Stops


IN THIS PHOTO: Pete Shelley (who died on 6th December, 2018 in Estonia aged sixty-three) of Buzzcocks photographed in London in 1977/PHOTO CREDIT: Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock

Pete Shelley and the Loss of the Icons


EVERY time a hugely popular musician dies...


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Buzzcocks in 1978 (John Maher, Steve Garvey; Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle)/PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Gabrin/Redferns.

it is always sad and brings us all together. One can never tell how the music landscape will alter and what affects will be felt but we all learned about the death of the Buzzcocks’ singer Pete Shelley earlier in the week. Nobody knew he was ill and, aged only sixty-three; he was taken away from us too soon! I do often wonder whether these huge artists who leave us sooner than we’d like; whether we preserve their memory adequately.  Shelley died of a heart attack and, as soon as the news was shared, grief poured from every corner of social media and people were shaping memories of the Buzzcocks and why his unique pen changed music. Whilst a lot of his Punk peers were writing something more aggressive and anti-establishment in the 1970s; Shelley’s songs were a more gentle affair. That is not to say it lacked bite but, whether writing about love or the pressures of life, he put in more musicianship, songcraft and lyrical genius than anyone around him. I will look at another couple of music legends that will be remembered and recalled next month but, right now, it is worth thinking about Shelley and how his death has legacy is being remembered. To me, the music of the Buzzcocks was about regret and a teenage feeling of longing and unrequited lust. In 1978, when the band came onto the scene, we had the likes of Kate Bush and Blondie making huge statements…


 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

This fiery yet sensitive band led by a poet with a huge heart was not what many were expecting. Another Music in a Different Kitchen is seen as one of the best debut albums of the 1970s and hits such as I Don’t Mind influenced subsequent Pop-Punk bands. Their sophomore album, released in the same year, boasted the epic Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) and is the song many associated with the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley. The album is an essential offering from the Punk era but the band would continue to make albums as recently as 2014 (the so-so The Way is not essential but still has flashes of brilliance). Since 1978, nine studio albums arrived from the band and, at a time when they were competing against the Sex Pistols and The Clash; the Buzzcocks were Punk giants but offered a different approach and different aesthetic. There were more lurid and saucy moments (Orgasm Addict) but Shelley shone brightest when documenting the struggles of the heart and the sort of emotional tensions many of the Buzzcocks’ fans would have felt. I have ended this piece with a Buzzcocks playlist but, before expanding on my point, here are a couple of articles that pay tribute to Shelley and his music. Vulture wrote a fantastic article:

Forming Buzzcocks in 1975 with Howard Devoto (after Devoto left to form Magazine, Steve Diggle would be the only other consistent member), Pete Shelley invented a lovelorn and conversational poetry driven by slashing guitar music as unshakably catching as any of cupid’s arrows ever were. If Richard Hell was Baudelaire and Patti Smith was, well, Patti Smith, then Pete Shelley was Frank O’Hara, always in love with love, a sophisticate in his underwear, plus treble. And if maybe some of Shelley’s [cough] descendants took “all those stains on your jeans” from Buzzcocks’ first single, 1977’s “Orgasm Addict,” a bit too much as a career lyrical template, what’s more tragic/romantic than unintended consequence...

It’s pretty much canon that Singles Going Steady is the “best” Buzzcocks album the same way that a singles collection of the Temptations or the Supremes would be those groups’ “best.” Singles Going Steady gets youth and desire exactly right. It’s a perfect album from a band that never fetishized perfection.

To remember Pete Shelley’s songs is to feel the pain of nostalgia, like visiting your hometown when every shuttered deli and graveyard is a monument to some youthful humiliation. Here’s where you took an hour to tell a boy exactly how you felt, only to have him ask about a better-looking friend before you could get the words out. Here’s where you tried to feel up a social better and got shot down in a way that shakes you even now. Here’s where you did something cruel, only to realize just how cruel you were years later”.

Pitchfork talked about Shelley’s sensitivity and a unique way of mixing Punk and Pop; a gender-neutral poet who was not anyone who came before. In a genre that was dominated by a sense of crude, overtly-masculine spit and aggression; it was refreshing to see this tenderer songwriter who was penning anthem after anthem. Pitchfork shared their impressions and memories:

Whenever I listen to Buzzcocks’ music, what always strikes me is how modern it still sounds. But that is actually how it works with true innovation. No matter how much time passes—decades during which a breakthrough is assimilated and worn out by repetition, whether by others or by the artist repeating themselves—something of that initial shock of the new rings out and cuts through. And if you think about it, nearly everything handed down to us as “classic” was, in its own time, a break with tradition...

Although they were in the original core cluster of groups that invented UK punk, Buzzcocks would always be an anomaly within that movement—misfits among the misfits. There had never been words, a voice, a personality, like this in rock before. Shelley sang love songs when every other major punk vocalist rejected them as trivial next to political themes, or—if they did deal with desire and heartbreak—laced the words with spite and hostility. The aggression in Buzzcocks was all in the sound; the animating spirit was sensitive, open-hearted, vulnerable.

But there was more to Shelley than just perfect power pop. The second side of Singles Going Steady, dedicated to the group’s B-sides, grew steadily less straightforward, culminating in “Why Can’t I Touch It,” nearly seven minutes of loping almost-funk and stereo-separated guitar-slashes, and “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” which resembles suspended-animation Stooges, glistening with a coat of frost. The entire second side of A Different Kind of Tension was a Shelley mini-concept album, permeated with existential doubts and askew with a disassociated feeling influenced by LSD. And 1980’s “Are Everything,” one of the first-phase Buzzcocks’ last singles, was even more psychedelic: Shelley took acid for every stage of the process, from recording to mixing, hoping for the rush of revelation to overcome him”.

A lot has been written about Pete Shelley: his different sides and his massive heart. The way he changed music and has inspired legions of modern musicians cannot be understated.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Prince (the music icon died in 2016)/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

A lot of time will pass and we will pay tribute to Shelley every year. There will be the usual playlists with his best songs and there will be archive interviews from Shelley. We will remember and sadly look back to his death and how the world lost a giant. Over the past few years, we have lost music greats such as George Michael, Prince and David Bowie. George Michael died on Christmas Day in 2016 – the same year that saw both David Bowie (10th January) and Prince (21st April) leave us. We still hear their music around but I wonder if their memories are being preserved in the right way. I love the fact we will recall the brilliance of Pete Shelley and Prince but, in years to come, there will be a legion of artists and fans that will only be drip-fed the music of these lost icons. I am not suggesting we build shrines to these musicians but there should be some avenue or exhibition that means, even though they have gone, people will be able to look back and discover their music every day. I do worry artists like George Michael and Prince will start to slowly fade out of the consciousness – or their music will not be played as much as we’d like.


 IN THIS PHOTO: George Michael (who died on 25th December, 2016)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Christmas is a happy time but we have lost Pete Shelley and, as I said, mark the two-year anniversaries regarding the deaths of George Michael, David Bowie and Prince. Look back even further and there are so many musicians who are no longer with us – taken way too soon and no longer releasing music. We all have a bond to them in some way and it makes me a bit sad to think these titans are not played as much as years previous. I know there are lots of articles out there (and the music never dies) but I feel there should be some permanent memorial that recognises the music greats and brings their music to new generations. Think about Shelley and his wonderful songs and you want these to compel and drive the next generation of songwriters. They can discover the Buzzcocks online but there is so much brilliance and Shelley gold that needs to be collated, combined and there for all to see. I think this of all the great artists who are gone and wonder whether there is some way, once the dust has settled, we can create a monument to Shelley. Maybe it would be maudlin having a museum of departed stars but from older departed such as John Lennon to more modern losses such as Amy Winehouse; these innovators deserve more than streaming immortality. Pete Shelley and his impact cannot be undersold and many people will be experiencing his music for the first time now. I have no doubt many new bands and songwriters will learn from the Buzzcocks lead and one hopes this great is not easily forgotten. Maybe there is a solution but I think it is easy to let artists fade out mind once they have gone – streaming is very much about the here and now and older acts are overlooked in some ways. We must think about some permanent conservation and promotion but, in a difficult week, Pete Shelley is very much in the mind. The Punk pioneer might have left us but, with his generations-lasting music out there...

HE will never be forgotten.